St Stephen Lewisham
Year B, Easter 4
3rd May 2009

Counting Sheep


During His earthly ministry Jesus spent much time teaching his Disciples the truth about Himself, His Heavenly Father, or just as important, the truth about themselves. The Book of Wisdom tells us that ‘in the Beginning’ He helped His Father to create beings like you and me in order that we might ‘glorify God and enjoy Him for ever’. His Incarnation – taking human flesh and becoming one of us – was another vital stage in God’s Plan for bringing us to perfection, as was His Sacrifice of Himself for us upon the Cross on Good Friday and His Resurrection on Easter Morning.

But Jesus also knew that those who were listening to him (even His Apostles) wouldn’t understand words like ‘Incarnation’, ‘Resurrection’, ‘Atonement’, ‘Reconciliation’ and ‘Justification’: (the sort of words theologians use nowadays when talking amongst themselves). And anyway, such words probably couldn’t be translated into the everyday Aramaic language which He and his hearers spoke.

So instead of confusing them, he invented, and adapted, a number of stories using picture-language about everyday things that everyone knew about: lamps, salt, fishing-nets, sowing seed and reaping harvests for example. In this way He could communicate the truth so that His hearers could understand it.

One of his favourite word-pictures was that of shepherds, sheep, lambs and flocks: everyday things in the world in which He was living. Both the Old and New Testaments use these pictures to describe God’s relationship with Man: and in today’s Gospel Jesus draws a picture of both the good and the bad shepherd and what happens to the sheep under their care. So let’s look more closely at what He has to say.

First Jesus reminds us that the sheep belong to Him; and he contrasts these sheep with other ones who are being cared for by a ‘hired man’, to whom the sheep do not belong. Both shepherds do their job their job properly until the wolf attacks the flock. That’s the very moment when the difference between those two shepherds, the owner and the hireling, gets shown up. When the wolf comes, their owner (the good shepherd) is ready to ‘lay down his life for his sheep’; the hireling, however, ‘abandons the sheep and runs away’. In other words it’s only when things get difficult and dangerous that the difference between the two shepherds becomes plain: the good one stands by his flock regardless of the cost to himself, his personal safety or his career; the hireling thinks first, foremost, and only, of his own well-being.

Secondly, Jesus tells us that the good shepherd knows his own sheep – and they also know him. In other word he has an individual relationship with every one of them. That is something the hireling doesn’t have. You can almost hear him saying to his friends, ‘I think one sheep is pretty much like another’. But it’s only by forming and sustaining that relationship which grows between himself and individual sheep that a shepherd learns to love a creature of a different kind. And what’s true of man and sheep, is even more so of ourselves and our fellow-men each of whom has had an individual living soul planted in us by God. We cannot love our neighbour effectively unless we take the trouble to get to know him.

Thirdly, Jesus reminds us that there are others beside ourselves, both flocks and sheep, who belong to Him just as much as we do. ‘I have other sheep’, He said ‘that are not of this fold, and these I have to lead as well. They too will listen to my voice and [eventually] there will be only one flock and one shepherd’.

We mustn’t suppose that the flock which we can presently see, and of which we are a member, is the only one which matters to Him. It may well be that our eyesight is so limited that we can’t see beyond our immediate surroundings. It’s only when we begin seeing things through His eyes that we start to realize that His flock includes people of every language, nation, tongue and culture, and if some of us are, so to speak, of a different breed from them, that doesn’t mean that only we are His sheep and they are not.

So what does this mean in practice for us who are inclined to see ourselves as belonging first and foremost to one particular flock in London SE13?

Well it means first of all, doesn’t it, that we need to recognize what it means to ‘belong’ to someone, in the way that the sheep belong to the Good Shepherd. It means that we simply are ‘not our own masters’. We have one Master, the Good Shepherd, who ‘laid down his life in order that we might live’. So the first question we ought to ask ourselves about everything we do is not ‘do I or don’t I like doing this’, but ‘is this action helping to turn me into the kind of person that my Owner wants me to be. In other words our relationship with our Creator is something of critical importance in deciding whether we are going to enjoy being in His company or not.

This leads on to the second question of our own relationship with His other sheep. For better or worse (from our own point of view), the Good Shepherd has plonked us down with a company of people whom we might otherwise never have met from one end of our life to the other. The enormous probability is that we shall, to begin with anyway, like some of them much more than we do others – and that even those whom we like from the beginning will sooner or later turn out to have shortcomings, small or large, which we find particularly trying.

If this find that this is so, then, as sensible sheep, we should ask ourselves whether it is even remotely possible that there are certain things about ourselves which ‘even our best friends won’t tell us about’. Are our own shortcomings just as irritating to them as theirs are to us?. And having asked ourselves that question (and answered it truthfully) we then need to ask ourselves two other ones: ‘Is there any way that, with God’s help, we might be able to do something about our own deficiencies?’; and secondly, ‘Is there is any way in which we can help our neighbour overcome his or her shortcomings?’ – for example, by refraining from interrupting them whilst they are trying to listen to someone else; or by boring them with a catalogue of our complaints about how badly life has been treating us?

Finally we need to have our spiritual eyesight improved until we start seeing things not just with a local, but a national or even global vision: ‘my church’, or ‘our church’ are phrases which need to be used very carefully and sparingly. The Church, of which we are individual members, is God’s Church in a much deeper sense than it is, or ever will be, ours.

We can get a much better idea of what this means if we decide to take part in events like the Glastonbury and Walsingham Pilgrimages, or the great Assembly to be held in Westminster Central Hall on 6th July – about which you be hearing more in the near future…...

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